Your Software Freedom is not my Software Freedom: A reflection on Chadwick Boseman

Trigger warning: Grief, police violence, death.

This blog post was first written on August 28th, 2020.

Today is a sad day. Chadwick Boseman is dead. At 43 years old, he lost a terminal battle with stage IV colon cancer. As his great light dims, I am left to wonder what loss will happen next in 2020.

But like the ashes of a phoenix, we will rise. His death reminds me of the fierce urgency of now, as said by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. That in the moment of darkness that follows death, a new bright light will emerge. It is just so human for us to cling to the embers of hope, in the fear that we will one day be delivered from suffering.

Boseman was a social leader and source of inspiration for many. His life and many roles championed racial equity on the Hollywood screens. Boseman was passionate about what he did. He led a committed life.

Boseman’s death caused me to reflect on the definition of Freedom in the movement I am embedded within: the Free Software movement. Yet in this community I value, there are seeds of discontent. The fierce urgency of now has revealed that systemic social injustices continue to exist in our society, as they have for centuries. The generational question we must answer as witnesses to this moment is: will we continue to tolerate the systemic faults within our society? Or must we imagine a more fair society? A more just society? I know we can because we have to.

On the origins of Software Freedom

A background on the Software Freedom movement is helpful to understand this discourse on freedom.

Free Software is a social movement born in the 1980s in North America. In the beginning, it was mostly a set of ideals and values set forth by MIT computer scientist Richard Stallman. Stallman witnessed a dramatic shift in how the free market distributed software in the 1980s. Previously to then, software was usually trivial; an afterthought. Software was freely shared between companies, universities, and individuals. Part of this is to blame on the industry’s intent focus on hardware during the Cold War. At the time, there was no standardization to hardware development, so software source would have to be rewritten to compile on different hardware architectures from competing vendors. However, this mindset eroded in the 1980s. There were a few lead architectures at the time, mostly championed by Intel. Software had to be compiled less often. Now, this freely shared source code could be repurposed much more easily.

At this point, the software industry went mainstream. Software began to receive acute focus by companies with computer science talent. Talent needs moved beyond hardware. Stallman saw all this, and believed the shift was at a great loss to the personal freedoms of the individual. So he coined “Software Freedom”, and a movement formalized.

With that background, the word “Freedom” has a specific, coded meaning to people who believe in the principles of Software Freedom. Software Freedom protects a set of digital rights that the movement leaders first advocated for in the 1980s and 1990s. The Four Freedoms (to use, to study, to share, to improve) are entrusted to the individual user of a computer system.

Freedom in 2020

However, it is 2020. Not 1985. Not 1991. 2020.

Questions about what Freedom means could never be more removed from the context of right now. Software Freedom asserts rights fully-realized by participants in the new digital society. Yet billions of people on Earth remain unconnected to the Internet. How can you realize rights that were never accessible to begin with?

Even if you are participating in digital society, freedom to read source code and make changes to it are just one of many different examples of freedom. But what other definitions exist?

The freedom to be safe asleep in your home without being gunned down by those entrusted to protect you.

The freedom that your children may live in a world where they may realize their fullest potential.

The freedom to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

In comparison, the freedom to read the source code of the web browser that keeps crashing on an unsupported device does not practical value to people who have different questions in the pursuit of freedom.

Reconciliation and intersections

But surely there is somewhere we can reconcile these different definitions of freedom. They may conflict at times but they are not in opposition to each other. There must be a way to realize both the freedoms of the individual to live a better life, and the freedoms of witting or unwitting participants in a digital world governed by increasingly invisible hands.

The intersection is surprising. Before identifying it, it is important to understand its purpose. The purpose of the intersection of these two definitions of freedom is to unify and empower people to be in control of their own destinies. Our destinies and futures are influenced but not entirely controlled by our environments. Both types of freedom believe in the right of the individual to understand the ways a system works, in order to understand how the system impacts them.

Said simply, the purpose is inclusion. The purpose is to bring together. The purpose is to empower. The purpose is give individuals the tools to shape their own destinies.

The name of this intersection is digital intersectionality.

Digital intersectionality makes inclusion a first-class citizen. It must take an intersectional approach from the outset if it is to accommodate the hyper-globalized world we live in. Albert Einstein once reflected in a letter to schoolchildren in Japan about his great delight in being able to communicate across such distances—something that was unheard of at the time. It is a cute memory, but also emphasizes the ways the world has changed since the most widely-known events of human genocide. Digital intersectionality has no borders. Its borders are decentralized; its borders may or may not have nationality. Copper wire, fiber lines, satellite receivers; these are the conduits that digital intersectionality resides in.

Digital intersectionality must be about inclusion. Digital intersectionality by definition must always be intersectional. Digital intersectionality must always consider the role of the individual in contributing to healthy, collective society. Digital intersectionality must embrace love.

What now?

Chadwick Boseman is gone. But we are not.

We are in the same world. Breathing the same air. Living under the same sun, and the same stars. As I see the void and grief left behind in his wake, as I look around me in a global pandemic that places the heaviest burdens on those with the most to bear, as I continue to see the effects of unjust systems perpetuate, I am thinking more about my own role in shaping the world we must create.

So I will continue to advocate and celebrate both freedoms, software freedom and inner freedom, under the mutual banner of digital intersectionality.

Special thanks to my early editors!

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